Supply Chain Education: Cramming for Success

Supply Chain Education: Cramming for Success

Business is crazy these days. That means graduates of supply chain programs need to understand resilience and risk management along with technology, analytics, operations, and strategy.

The master’s in supply chain program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) asked a global footwear company to provide a challenge for students to address. The company responded, asking if the students could help modify the design of its shoe boxes so they were sustainable, resealable, and sturdy enough to travel from the factory to either retail stores or homes, on their own.

To come up with an answer, the students had to consider the weight and size of the boxes, manufacturing operations, the supply chain, and costs, among other factors. “It was a fascinating exercise, dealing with the simplicity of a shoe box,” says Len Morrison, manager, professional development for the program.

Yet when scaled across millions of shoes of different sizes, as well as complex supply chains, the challenges become formidable.

As the business world evolves, so do the skills companies seek in supply chain program graduates. Today’s supply chain leaders need to understand technology, analytics, operations, and strategy, as well as how these “dance” together, says Maria Jesus Saenz, Ph.D., executive director, MIT SCM Master Programs and MIT Digital Supply Chain Transformation Lab.

The fundamentals of supply chain management—ensuring products are available where and when they’re needed and in the right quantities—haven’t changed. But advances in technology, and particularly analytics, are shifting how supply chain organizations achieve these objectives, says Prakash Mirchandani, professor and director, Center for Supply Chain Management at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s impacting supply chain curriculum.

Supply chain education, like many organizations, is also incorporating a greater focus on resilience and risk management, prompted largely by the disruptions of the past few years. Similarly, growing awareness of sustainability and fair labor practices has prompted supply chain educators to also consider these elements of the supply chain.

Along with changes in curriculum, the ways in which education is delivered is shifting. To promote lifelong learning and allow more individuals to “upskill” even if they’re unable to enroll in traditional graduate programs, more schools offer shorter courses and certificate programs, some of which can be used toward graduate degrees.

And while virtual learning is unlikely to become the only option, particularly in undergraduate programs, it appears here to stay.

Focus on Risk and Analytics

While the topics of risk and resilience have long been included in supply chain education, they’re now being formalized in supply chain classes, says Joseph R. Huscroft, Jr., Ph.D. and chair of the department of marketing and supply chain management at North Carolina A&T State University. Students might assess whether to boost the number of vendors supplying certain components or to add a second vendor that’s closer to their operations.

Rather than an overwhelming focus on driving down costs—often the case until recently—they’re considering more variables as they make decisions.

Historically, many programs trained students to look at functions as a set of processes that could be improved, perhaps through disciplines such as Lean or Six Sigma, says Mark Ferguson, senior associate dean of academics and research and professor of management science at the University of South Carolina.

That’s shifting, with less focus on boosting the efficiency of specific tasks within a warehouse or manufacturing plant, and greater emphasis on data analytics, as well as on harnessing large, disparate data sets to gain insight.

The University of South Carolina has made a major effort over the past six to seven years to dramatically increase the number of courses that focus on data analytics. For example, it introduced a new graduate program in data analytics.

“Employers still want functional expertise, like marketing or supply chain, but analytics is the differentiator,” Ferguson says.

Machine learning also needs to be part of an ideal supply chain curriculum today, says Sachin Modi, chair of the department of marketing and supply chain management and professor of global supply chain management at Wayne State University.

Managers often need to make decisions in uncertain environments, but now they’ll have large amounts of data they can evaluate. Those who are adept in machine learning tend to be better able to identify which data to leverage to improve their decision-making.

Manufacturing Concepts for Service Industries

As the United States moves toward a service economy, with sectors like healthcare and education gaining prominence, supply chain education has to keep pace. Some of the supply chain insight gained from traditional manufacturing is now being applied in the service sector.

For instance, determining how many appointments to leave open for patients who need immediate access to their family doctor or general practitioner can draw from the calculations used to make inventory management decisions.

“Manufacturing concepts are informing best practices in healthcare and other services,” says Amy David, clinical assistant professor of management in the supply chain and operations management program at Purdue University.

A student team from the University of Pittsburgh worked closely with client executives to examine how a pharmaceutical distributor could respond to rapid growth and increasing industry complexity. The team developed and evaluated five different strategic changes to the distribution system.

Based on an analysis of primary and secondary data, the team recommended a hybrid distribution model and a new ordering platform. These shifts led to substantial estimated cost savings and a low payback period, Mirchandani says.

Another change in supply chain curriculum reflects the shift of supply chains to supply networks, in which a small disruption in one part can have ripple effects across all parts, Modi says. As a result, students need to learn how to identify the critical breaking points.

Soft Skills Remain Critical

Even as employers look for technical expertise, they also want candidates who have strong “soft” skills. At North Carolina State University, for instance, the executive education program on supply chain leadership includes a focus on skills such as the ability to influence others, communicate effectively, work with teams, and motivate employees.

“We hear a lot about these topics,” says Rob Handfield, executive director of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative and professor of operations and supply chain management.

Greater awareness in business and society of what sometimes is referred to as “the triple bottom line”—or people, planet, and profit—is also influencing supply chain education. Sustainability, closed loop supply chains, labor practices, and fair trade are attracting interest in the corporate world and in supply chain education, David says.

As part of this, schools are “diving deeper to understand even more how interconnected we are,” Huscroft says. For instance, transportation management discussions delve into the universe of containers and chassis, along with the population of truckers. Students consider how a shortfall in any of these areas can bring supply networks to a halt.

Graduate supply chain students are exploring reverse logistics, recycling, and the circular economy, Huscroft says. They might consider how and whether to change product packaging to reduce the amount of material that needs to be recycled or disposed.

Diversity is a prominent topic, especially at the graduate level. While many programs have long discussed supplier diversity, they now also focus on ways to modify recruiting practices to build more diverse supply chain workforces, Huscroft says.

ripped from the headlines

As the subject of supply chains has captured headlines over the past year or two, it has prompted more students from a range of backgrounds to enter supply chain programs. Students who’ve studied other languages can find many opportunities in global supply roles.

No matter the background of these new students, all benefit. “They add to the classroom discussion,” David says.

At the same time, students who come with a background from outside business or supply chain may need additional exposure not just to supply chain topics, but also to subjects like finance and marketing, Mirchandani says. They might capture this through additional coursework or workshops.

Online Courses, Certificates

Along with changes to supply chain curricula, the ways in which information is delivered are changing as well. One of the most significant changes is a greater emphasis on “programs that deliver a lot of value in a short time,” Modi says. Not everyone can take several years out of the workforce to study in a traditional graduate-level program. Yet, many people want to “upskill themselves,” he says.

That’s leading to a range of certificate and other programs that focus on specific subjects and offer flexibility. In some cases, students can accumulate credits and certificates that over time lead to a degree.

“There’s a trend to small, stackable credentials,” David says. Instead of a years-long graduate program, supply chain professionals may earn one certificate and then another; eventually, some may be able to convert them to masters credits.

Among the new programs added to the University of Pittsburgh over the past few years is a certificate program in business analytics. Students can complete it in one term, and add it to their master’s in supply chain management, which typically takes two terms.

North Carolina State University offers a certificate program for engineering students who’d like to take supply chain classes. They’re able to combine their technical skills with supply chain challenges.

Through the MITx MicroMasters Program in Supply Chain Management, thousands of people across the globe can take courses from the school’s supply chain faculty. Students who complete five of these courses, usually over about 18 months, and score well on the comprehensive final exam, can apply to MIT’s accelerated five-month master’s degree through the blended supply chain management program. If accepted, these students join the other students in the master’s in supply chain program on campus for the last five months of their program, and graduate as a single, combined cohort.

On average, the “blended” students have about seven years of experience and tend to be older than those in the residential program, Saenz says.

Some courses last just a few weeks. During the SCALE Connect Conference held each January, students spend three weeks at MIT, earning a Certificate in Global Logistics and Supply Chain Management from the MIT Global Scale Network. This certificate is in addition to the master’s in supply chain they’ll receive from their respective institutions.

And while classes still include lectures and tests, many programs today require students to work with companies to address real-world supply chain challenges. These exercises allow students to apply classroom theory to actual problems and develop the “ability to resolve ambiguous situations when the problem itself is not that clear,” Mirchandani says.

remote learning Here to Stay

While many schools had already been offering online courses, most ramped up their offerings during the pandemic. That shift appears permanent. Over the past few years, the idea of remote instruction as “lesser than” in-person classes has diminished, David says.

Indeed, the benefits of some remote instruction have become clear. For instance, when students are presented with challenging material in an online course, they can replay and review the session until they understand it. That’s especially helpful at the graduate level, when students may come with a wide variety of experience and knowledge.

Another benefit: Online courses can help students, and especially undergraduates, remain on track for graduation even if they take a semester abroad or work at an internship.

Virtual learning also allows schools to expand the number of students they can accommodate, Huscroft says. Instead of 30 students in a single classroom, a professor may be able to reach several times that number online. This also can help accommodate the schedules of nontraditional students.

At the same time, in-person classes likely will continue to play a major role. Many students, and especially those in undergraduate programs, want the experience of in-person programs.

Another obstacle can be the investment required to access the technology that will allow for a worthwhile virtual learning experience.

For instance, simply recording or streaming a professor conducting an in-person class often results in a poor virtual experience, as it’s difficult for the professor to address both the remote and in-person audience.

It may be acceptable in some cases, such as providing the video to students who need to miss a few classes because they’re sick or quarantining, but it’s rarely ideal, Huscroft says. Yet the cost of quality remote-learning tools may strain some school budgets.

Preparing for a More Strategic Role

While the current supply chain disruptions are making life more difficult for many individuals and businesses, they’re also demonstrating the importance of the supply chain function. As strong supply chains are increasingly viewed as providing organizations with competitive advantages, and not simply as cost centers, more students in supply chain programs will find a receptive job market when they graduate.

Supply chain programs are adjusting so they can prepare their graduates to lead organizations through an ever-changing roster of challenges.